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The story behind Washington's stunning turnaround is its defense—starting with the goaltending. If five months ago you had told Poile or Murray that goalies Pat Riggin, 24, and Al Jensen, 25, would help the Caps to lead the NHL's overall goals-against race by 23 goals; that Riggin and Jensen would be ranked first and third, respectively, in individual goals-against averages; that Jensen and Riggin would rank 1-2 in the shutout standings with four and three, respectively; well, they'd have sent you to Flin Flon with a one-way ticket in your hand. In fact, on Oct. 22, with the Caps record at 0-7, Washington looked to be a team in desperate need of a major league goaltender.
Riggin had lost five of those seven games, Jensen the other two, and it was Jensen's turn to play that night against the Flyers. And play he did. "Al must've stopped two or three breakaways and three or four two-on-ones," Murray says. "You could feel him lift the team."
The Caps won 4-1, and they were on their way. Jensen shut out Pittsburgh 1-0 and New Jersey 2-0, beat Minnesota and Winnipeg, and suddenly the team that couldn't win had a five-game winning streak. By mid-January the Caps were 22-21-3, and Jensen had won all 22 games. Riggin, meanwhile, had been sent to their minor league farm club in Hershey—a Chocolate Purgatory—with his 0-8-1 record and horrendous 4.70 goals-against average.
"I was mad when they sent me down, because I don't think I'm a minor league goalie," Riggin says. But he also says, "As things got worse for me, I noticed guys diving all over the place to block shots before they got through to me."
In Hershey, Riggin went undefeated (2-0-1) in three games, and he was recalled, as promised, to play against Winnipeg on Jan. 17. "I was still mad," Riggin says, "and all I had riding on that game was my whole career."
Riggin won his first game of the season that night, 8-3, and after Jensen beat Chicago 5-3 three days later, Riggin returned to defeat Pittsburgh 3-2 the next night. Suddenly it appeared that the Caps had not one but two solid goalies—or two more than they thought they had.
Then, on Jan. 22, while lifting weights, Jensen strained a muscle in his back; he hasn't played since but is expected to return this week. Riggin became the No. 1 goaltender and led the Caps through a 14-game unbeaten streak that vaulted them from fourth place into, at one point, a tie for first. Riggin had a spectacular run of consecutive shutouts on the road—at Toronto, New Jersey and Minnesota—and his goals-against average for his personal 13-game unbeaten streak (12 wins, one tie) was 1.46. "I'm playing so well it's ridiculous," he said.
All the Caps are, for that matter. Or as Langway says, "We're playing the same no matter who's in goal. We cover in front, clear the rebounds and break the puck out fast." Indeed, with the playoffs just three weeks away, the Capitals must be regarded as a threat to stop the Islanders' Drive for Five. And not just because their goaltending has no equal.
On defense, Langway has help this season; he no longer has to be a one-man gang. Scott Stevens, 19, played brilliantly but much too rambunctiously last season as a rookie, getting into fights at the wrong time and finding himself caught up ice when he should have been back defending his goaltender. It was Langway who helped put an end to all that, explaining to Stevens that there is a right time and a right place to flex his muscles and to rush the puck. And playing alongside Langway is Larry Murphy, 23, who leads the Cap defensemen with 13 goals and 30 assists and fires away at will from the right point on the power play. He also hasn't been the defensive cipher he was for L.A. before the Caps acquired him in a deal for Engblom on Oct. 18. "I carry Langway," Murphy likes to joke.
On offense, the Caps' top four scorers—Mike Gartner, Dave Christian, Bengt Gustafsson and Carpenter—have never been confused with Gretzky or Bossy, or even with Pat Lafontaine, the Islanders' latest rookie hotshot, but with the type of defense that Riggin, Jensen, Langway and friends provide, the Caps don't need six goals to win every game.